At a time when computer mainframes across the world heave with the visages of almost everybody who has a mobile phone and subscribes to social media, Artists in the Frame, an exhibition of self-portraits at Manchester Art Gallery, might be tempted to draw shallow parallels with this zeitgeist of digital vanity – one which has proven, ironically, that most people can’t take good photographs of themselves.
While the ‘great artists made pictures of themselves and now we do it, too’ connection is referenced, the more noble ideal of Artists in the Frame is to understand the psychology of self-imaging through the centuries with the assistance of an impressive array of conceptual and gilt-framed works by Sir Anthony van Dyck, John Byrne, Karrie Fransman and Grayson Perry, among others.
Of course, the quality of these exhibits draws artistic dividing lines between the serious self-portrait and the average ‘selfie’, though similar impulses lie behind both: to create one’s image would seem to be part of the human condition, not a pastime restricted to the pensive artist. It is a means of self-discovery, of hardening or dispensing with personal psychological assumptions. For better or for worse (and on social media, it’s often the latter) it is an opportunity to project a vision of who we feel ourselves to be.
Whereas social media is often nothing more than a platform for the self-obsessed, gravitas lends these works a deserved respectability. Brian Griffin’s bromide print Self-portrait (1988) depicts the sometime photographer of Depeche Mode and Echo & the Bunnymen’s features framed by a parka hood, a metaphor for the spikiness of a sea urchin, revealing the heightened sense of self-protection he was feeling at the time of its execution. Karrie Fransman’s fantastic Selves Portrait (2015) rejects the traditional, mono-faceted self-portrait in favour of multiple cut-out figurines, each expressing a different emotional self, arranged in a wreath representing her personality as a whole. Grayson Perry’s fascinating A Map of Days (2013) lacks the artist’s face entirely, laying his complex character bare in the form of a map of a walled city, each street and alleyway representing a particular, personal feeling or point of view.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the last self-portrait of Sir Anthony van Dyck that forms the exhibition’s illustrious centrepiece, painted by the artist c.1640 during his tenure as court painter to Charles I. After four centuries of private ownership, its future public exhibition is assured after recently being purchased by the National Gallery following a successful fundraising campaign. It shows an artist at the peak of his powers, full of self-confidence and flair, complete with Carolingian flowing locks and goatee beard. The frame alone is a wonder to behold, painted brilliant gold and carved with a sunflower at its apex, indicating loyalty to the artist’s paymaster King.
Mancunian artist Louise Jopling’s Self-portrait (1877) is a stunning gem, rivalling Angelica Kauffmann’s earlier, larger composition, the similarly-titled Self-portrait (c.1770-75), for its effusion of gentility and general perfectionism. Adolphe Valette’s Self-portrait (c.1917) depicts the full-bearded French-born, Manchester-based artist accompanied by a tastefully arranged wine bottle and fruit. The painting has a more asymmetrical quality than his famous impressionist work, reflecting a fondness for Japanese art.
Other highlights include Julian Opie’s algorithm-driven, blinking and breathing Julian with T-shirt (2005), and John Byrne’s excellent, warts and all Self-Portrait – The Yellow Cigarette (1986), showing the artist’s elongated cranium puffing away on a cigarette hanging from a mouth furnished with smoke and a broken tooth.
Apart from being a visual delight, Artists in the Frame proves that the self-portrait can be admired without reservation in the same way as any good painting can be: a level of artistic merit helps to ameliorate understandable preconceptions of narcissism associated with the genre, letting talent speak for itself.
Words and photos by Matthew Graham
Main image: Self-portrait. Angelica Kauffmann, c.1770-75
What: Artists in the Frame
Where: Manchester Art Gallery
When: until August 31, 2015